A new generation of Israelites perched on the mountainside overlooking the Jordan river and listened to Moses—now well into his second century—preach. As they listened to the words that would become the book of Deuteronomy, I wonder how they reacted to a tiny bit of that sermon. It’s squeezed in between prohibitions on certain kinds of foods and a detailed description of the seventh-year debt cancelation, and it outlines the way that the people of Israel were to handle their tithe.

The idea of celebration doesn’t usually bring tithing or Old Testament law leaping to mind, but that’s exactly what Deuteronomy 14:22’29 portrays. Things were going to change for the new generation that faced the promised land. Instead of nomads travelling the desert, they’d become a settled society. Farms and vineyards and orchards they didn’t plant would sustain the Israelites as they moved into homes they didn’t build in cities they didn’t construct.

God had plans to bless the socks of his people, and Moses’s protracted sermon (written out in Deuteronomy) provided the framework they needed to enjoy those blessings. But amid the harder passages to digest such as forbidden foods and laws about skin diseases, there is a surprising picture of celebration. In Deuteronomy 14, God outlines how he wants his portion of the people’s livelihood to be used. And it might come as a bit of a surprise.

The section that begins when verse 22 introduces the tithe as something the Israelites were supposed “to be sure to” do. Behind the translation in our English Bibles is a Hebrew way of doubling up on a verb—it creates a sort of emphasis that leaves no question about the command. It’s similar to a mom’s raised eyebrow that says, “I meant what I said.”

The tithe part wasn’t optional—in fact its non-optional nature became so ingrained in the psyche of the nation that centuries later the Pharisees sat down with a “tithe-spoon” and measured out God’s share of their spices.

The tithe itself isn’t surprising. It’s what comes after the command to tithe that might be a bit of a shock. Instead of donating to the temple, God instructs his people to take what they’ve set aside for him and use it in a giant celebration at the spot where the tabernacle would be set up. “But,” I imagine a concerned Israelite interjecting, “What happens if our food would spoil on the journey to the Tabernacle?”

Well, God had that covered too. He made a provision that those for whom the trip was a bit too long could sell their tithe produce and turn it into silver. Then, carrying the money to the tabernacle, buy “whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice” (Deut. 14:26).

Codified in his law, God made sure that his people would use his tithe in a giant party celebrating his goodness and faithfulness to them. But it didn’t stop there. Every three years, the people were to stay in their home towns. Instead of making the trip to the Tabernacle, they were supposed to throw the ancient equivalent of a block party.

God asked his people to invite everyone to the party: The orphans, the widows, Levites, and the strangers—everyone was supposed to share in the celebration of God’s goodness even if they had nothing of their own to bring.

That’s a bit different to the way we think about tithing today. We’ll set aside our ten percent, write a check to our local church, and call it a day. But we serve a God who provides abundance to his people, and, if we believe Deuteronomy, who also wants his people to celebrate that abundance with a generosity that’s as big as his own.

Sure, Americans have Thanksgiving, and depending on your denomination, church-wide potlucks might be the glue that holds the congregation together. But what would happen if our attitude toward the things that God gives us more closely resembled the command he gave the Israelites all those centuries ago? What if we used our God-given resources to share his generosity with those around us who have no resources of their own?

When he told the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus presented religious men who passed over the hurt man. Each of them had a completely legitimate religious reason for ignoring his plight. To touch a dead body—which the injured Jew could very well have been—would have rendered them unclean. But the challenge that the Samaritan gives us looks like the one the Israelites received while overlooking the Jordan: to share of what we have with those who have nothing. Especially with those who’ve done nothing to earn what we have to share. After all, isn’t that what the grace of Jesus is all about?

Jed Ostoich

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  • 1/21/22